Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Follow the argument
By now anyone who cares has doubtless heard more than they can take about the way #Occupy protesters have disrupted traffic and business and school, and how police have been "forced" to use batons, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. There have also been occasions at which a kind of ad hoc bonhomie flowered for a few welcome moments, as when in New York police told the drum circle, "we like that beat."
Most of the stories are not so cheerful: protesters doused with pepper spray by police officers attempting to clear a public street--except that the protesters were on the sidewalk; or hit point-blank in the face with pepper spray while they sat peacefully on the lawn, arms linked; or battered and struck by batons, again with arms linked in solidarity (a posture the chancellor of Berkeley insisted was "not nonviolent", whatever the hell that means. Did you need another reason to despair over the state of American higher education?)
You can go on iterating stories like this until you want to cry. As atrocious as some of the anecdotes are, no, they don't involve (so far) any real ammunition (if you don't count aerosols), and yes, yes, the police "are the 99% too." Yet neither the grim details nor the saving caveats are central to the Occupiers' concerns. With every line, such accounts point us to questions of crowd management, on police abuse of power, and to civic questions about "balancing rights." They could all seem, in short, a tremendous diversion of attention.
This diversion has had me thinking hard lately. The activist in me (struggling hard with the cynic) sees every story about police brutality as changing the subject--not as good press or bad press, but just the wrong press, press about the wrong issue. The problem is not police brutality. The problem is corporatism.
But. The philosopher must be concerned with the Whole. Socrates gave the philosopher a twofold rule: follow the argument wherever it leads. This means:
follow the argument wherever it leads,
follow the argument wherever it leads.
The first formulation, Following the argument wherever it leads, means that we see how issue opens upon issue and question upon question. What does it mean that a protest against corporatism has occasioned police brutality? What is the balance, in our tradition, between the right to protest and other legitimate civic concerns--sanitation, safety, commerce? While some of these debates are legitimate (the police, alas, are not the only ones victimizing people in protest camps, as allegations of rape make all too clear), some smell like opportunistic attempts to get rid of Something In The Way. At what point, or under what conditions, then, do these questions themselves cease being legitimate and become instead subterfuge for maintaining the status quo?
The second formulation, Following the argument wherever it leads, means: it is important that we should see that these matters are all intimately intertwined with each other, but that importance will be lost on us if we forget that they are intertwined specifically with the central matter of the economic system under which we have lived more or less since the Civil War, if not the Jackson administration. Keeping sight of this center is not just a concern for activists. It is (I insist) a matter for anyone who wants to think. The movement (if that's what it is) needs to think broadly, but also at length.
There is, too, the third dimension--depth--which asks after what used to be called the existential meaning of these questions: what is human life that these politics can arise in it, what is politics that it sheds light on, or obscures, our human predicament? If you can ask these while not losing the urgency of the immediate task-at-hand (i.e., while tracking the argument), you are, in my book, a philosopher. Which of course does not make one immune from mistakes. Maybe the opposite. Probably.